Her dream was to become a classical pianist, but she failed to get into the classical piano school in Philadelphia that she dreamed of attending, a disappointment that hurt her for the rest of her life. She gave piano lessons and started performing on the side in Atlantic City, taking on the name Nina Simone rather than her birth name, Eunice Waymon. She performed jazz and blues, and liked it well enough. A career was born.
According to AllMusic, she would release more than 40 proper albums over the course of her life, running from the age of 24 to 60. It is Finished is 34th, coming out when she was 41. It marked the end of her pace of releasing two albums a year – her next one would come out four years later. I would say it sounds like nothing else in her discography, but I don’t know that discography sufficiently to say. Based on the discs I know, It Is Finished sounds different in some ways, but is still of a piece with her work. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
On the front cover, Nina sits in a pink and red floral-patterned dress on what looks like a pile of squash husks. Her yellow straw hat with a flower pinned to it rests to her right, maybe just touching her dress. She looks at the photographer emptily, devoid of the energy to do anything but look. Maybe it’s too hot, or maybe she’s sick of this. In the left corner of the cover, the title is written in whiteout, along with her name and the year.
The photo on the back cover captures Nina in a more regal moment. She is standing with the straw hat on, looking down at the photographer with just a hint of disdain, not quite haughty. ‘I can do this without compromising,’ her look says, or maybe just, ‘here you go, now leave me alone.’ Her arms are crossed, her left hand resting on her right shoulder. Behind her a thicket of trees, with a sandy path fading behind her dress.
Source: Juno Records
It’s not just the photo that stands out. There are no details about the songs – who wrote them, where they were recorded. Her longtime guitarist Al Schackman is called Avram here, the only time he is listed that way in his career, per AllMusic. The other listed musicians are Nadi Qamar on a variety of African instruments like the Guinee Kuna, and her brother Sam singing on ‘Let It Be Me’, the one song Nina does not get sole producing credit on. All of this may not be all that remarkable, but the information reveals little. The other Nina Simone albums I have feature liner notes, songwriting credits, fuller information on the band, and generally illuminate the listening experience. It Is Finished’s cover obscures it. Incidentally, none of the other albums feature two full-sized photos of Nina on them either.
My exploration of Nina Simone’s work since discovering ‘Sinnerman’ has been gradual and irregular. In a pre Youtube and Spotify world, I didn’t seek her out explicitly. I was a Sinnerman fan, happy to find that and put it on for 10 minutes while I showered and shaved, and that was that. I was aware that there was more out there, songs I recognized like ‘I Put A Spell On You’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,’ and on planes I would listen to her greatest hits when the plane’s audio library had them. But it wasn’t like with the other artists, where I bought CD after CD to acquire all of their vital discography. I went step by step through Dylan and the Beatles and Hendrix’s albums, I jumped straight to London Calling, and I more or less stopped at Horses. But I didn’t have Nina in that category, the ‘must-have’ file.
Why? It was probably just that, a category error. It could have been my own – she was in ‘jazz’, a black woman who I had not thought of as an auteur, as a creative force that I had to understand. It could have been the broader rock/indie blog culture of the time, grafting the established rock canon onto the internet, the same culture I was trying to absorb on my own, to catch up after a childhood of Russian music and classical, of album-oriented hard rock from my brother, of grunge and 90s punk and then emo from my friends. I was forging my own path in a way, but it was easier to tread where others had trodden before. Or I don’t know, maybe I just didn’t think about Nina enough.
In my late 20s I fully plunged into LP buying. I had bought a few discs in college – I think, before it was a thing again – and had a record player at my dad’s. But when we lived in Luxembourg, there was a built-in speaker system, very old, which came with a broken record player. My wife bought me a new player for my birthday. The apartment came with a row of records, including winners like a Juliet Greco double album of greatest hits and two ‘Mysteries of the Bulgarian Voice’ albums (we took those with us when we left, for Bulgaria of all places). So I started collecting more aggressively.
I bought my first Nina LP when visiting my dad in Massachusetts. At The Village Gate. I remember that the record cost in the $20s, and the CD was only five bucks. It’s a pleasant album from the first five years of her recording career. It has a version of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ on the first side, a version that is fairly unremarkable when set against the Animals’ one we all know. The second side features ‘Children Go Where I send You,’ which hints at some of the life Nina could bring to her music. This was a live recording, though it’s unclear whether it’s one show or several combined. Of final relevance to our subject, Al Schackman (listed under that name) is her guitarist, and ‘Zungo’ is performed both here and on the extra tracks of It Is Finished.
Sometime after buying It Is Finished – which I also bought at the shrunk down Newbury Comics in the Burlington Mall – I bought Emergency Ward in Spain. Nina recorded Side 1 at Fort Dix, and the 18-minute song may have been the whole performance. She melds George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ with a poem, ‘Today is a Killer’. The album cover is filled with news clippings about Vietnam. I don’t think it is hyperbole to say this is ‘Sinnerman’ updated for Nina’s modern world, and also it is the promise of a work like ‘Sinnerman’ delivered. Nina always aspired to a classical career, and this song is symphonic in its progression, backed by a church choir to add a gospel grounding. The other side is fine, two songs, ‘Poppies’ which is a mid-tempo song that I like listening to and don’t particularly remember, and ‘Isn’t It A Pity’, another George Harrison song that she plays as a bluesy solo lament, a showcase for the smoother side of her vocal range.
Just last month I bought Pastel Blues while visiting my brother in Nashville. My dad was there too and had no real interest in the city, and the weather was bad. Record shopping was as good as it got. Pastel Blues has ‘Sinnerman’ as its last track, but it sticks out from the rest of the record. ‘Be My Husband’, written by Nina’s husband Andy Stroud – I’ll come back to him shortly – is a tough, funky tune to lead the record, and ‘Strange Fruit’ is the famous Billie Holiday tune, but the rest of the record has not stuck with me yet. I’ll just add that Al Schackman played on this, though not, apparently, on Emergency Ward.
That’s a sporadic survey of Nina’s production, and it’s anachronistic to my experience with It Is Finished. But I wanted to give some context to why it’s this record that has been on my mind.
There’s also the biographical context for Nina. The album was mostly recorded in 1973, it seems – per Nadine Cohodas, one of her biographers, a concert from that year provides all but three tracks, and those come from a 1971 recording session – and released in 1974. Nina’s marriage to Stroud was largely broken by this point. He was her manager but had abused her over the years, they fought throughout their marriage (though they also swung to very affectionate terms at times). Nina was beginning to have tax issues, in part related to the divorce with Stroud and the fact that he wasn’t managing her money anymore. She had a difficult relationship with her daughter Lisa, abusing her even as she brought her around the world, on tour to Japan and Australia and in exile to Barbados – where Nina had an affair with the Prime Minister – and Liberia. In one famous anecdote, she started dancing in a Monrovia nightclub after having a few drinks and ended up naked and the talk of the town.
Source: UNC Press
I’m saying all this because this is a period where Nina’s life seems to come unstuck. She is frustrated that she hasn’t had the acclaim she deserves – she attributes it to her passion for protest music, something both Cohodas and the documentary, What Happened, Nina Simone? (which has an accompanying biography of Nina with the same title) support to a degree. She is not happy being single, and wants to be taken care of and loved. A few years later she’ll move to Switzerland and then Paris, she will resort to playing dives and to living in tiny apartments. The rest of her life will be uneasy, she will draw on support from old friends only to lash out at them, she will see one of her first recordings featured in a Chanel campaign and will write a memoir, her health will vacillate, she will be diagnosed with multi-personality disorder and move from city to country and back. She will experience luxury that most of us will not know, but contentment will be fleeting, if I read her biography correctly.
The unhappy artist is hardly a novelty. You could argue it’s an expectation, that anyone who achieves great success for specializing in performance of some sort, who achieves fame, will face great pressure from thereon. That a grounded, happy existence is the exception. But that doesn’t make it less saddening to consider.
I want to be careful about flattening her. The music will come in to give full depth and roundness to Nina. But before I get there, I want to make a couple comparisons. I saw Cat Power play a show in Greensboro, summer of 2006. The Greatest had come out that year, and it was a resurgence. She performed most of her concerts either prior to this show or in the year or so afterward with a Memphis backing band, a soul and R&B sound. She was a notoriously shy performer, one of those who might break off a show at any point. The tour with the band was supposed to have been her coming out, her leaving that shakiness behind. Her press at the time was about how she was now sober, and so more in her right mind to perform. She would have been 34 then, the age I am as I write this. Perhaps she was realizing what did and didn’t matter, or perhaps she just wanted to do a better job.
She played that night alone. The Flying Anvil, now closed, had a bar to the left as you walked in and an open performance room to the right. I remember it fitting maybe 125 people, though the article linked above said capacity was 850. Cat Power played alone both for her act and so far as no one opened for her. There was a piano on stage and she played guitar some too. The audience mostly sat on the floor, I think I stood at the edge of the room, near the door. I remember a few things about the performance. The impression that every song had the same rhythm, whether on guitar or piano. On the guitar, pluck with thumb and then strum with the rest of her hand, on the piano play a note with the left hand and then a chord with the right. 1-2, 1-2. The trouble with the monitor. Monitor trouble is the perennial plague of the struggling performer, and even though Cat was playing alone and the crowd was hushed and respectful, she couldn’t get the speaker to her satisfaction. She would stop songs and try again, she walked off at one point to give up on either the piano or the guitar and try the other (maybe she did that on each instrument), and eventually, after a more or less full set but without a conclusion, she gave up, stopped playing, asked for a light, lit a cigarette, and took questions for about 10 minutes. Which ties to the last thing I remember, which was that the audience knew her reputation and was devoted to her and to help her finish the show. I can’t remember if she had ties to the region or not, but there was that ‘horizontal support’ that Leonard Cohen talks about on the Isle of Wight concert recording.
More directly, when thinking about Nina Simone I think about Bob Dylan. I think about his famous turn away from folk music and protest music, about his 1965-66 music that burned the bridge to his past. I think it’s the greatest music made in the modern West, and I’ve always sided in my mind with Dylan in his devotion to his art, at his choice not to be subservient to political aims, even if noble ones.
But then I think of Nina, of her crossing to the white side of town for lessons and waiting until her parents were sit in their appropriate seats of honor. Of how her music grew into being political, of how ‘Mississippi Goddam’ knifed its protest. Nina was not an observer, or even a supporter, she was a victim and participant in the struggle. You can argue – I would argue – that as a Jew Dylan had and has responsibility to take part in the struggle for rights wherever it takes place, but in the context of 60s/70s America, he could turn his back and even be right to do so. Nina did not have that luxury. We call that white privilege now.
It Is Finished begins with applause, though the first track is from the studio per Cohodas. ‘The Pusher’ is a Steppenwolf song from their first album. It is on the Easy Rider soundtrack, though I don’t remember it from the movie and Nina’s version is the first I heard it. She growls through the initial verses, pounds the piano through the up and down riff. It’s a funky song, and it sounds like it could be her own. Schackman’s guitar jangles on the fills and the bass walks with a languid tone behind her voice. The language is anti-hard drugs, contrasting the drudge of heroin with the sweet dreams of the dealer’s pot. It sounds like the 60s, but the song itself could drop today. It’s all one verse repeating through and then a breakdown at the end where Nina lets looser.
From there the album goes to a classic Nina repeating piano figure. One-handed and descending, backed only by a hi-hat, it anchors the tune and opens up to the band before Nina sings. The AllMusic credit calls this a traditional, and it sounds like a church confessional, addressed to the Lord and with Nina’s less guarded voice. The piano sparkles in our ears, and it’s a dancing tune really. After Schackman takes a guitar lead in the break, Nina incites the crowd and picks up the momentum. What I love about ‘Sinnerman’ is its elemental drive, which Nina’s piano playing and singing amplify and layer, so that it builds from verse to verse to infinity. ‘Com’ By H’Yere – Good Lord’ doesn’t quite go that high, but is in this line.
‘Funkier Than A Mosquito’s Tweeter’ is a great title, and Nina plays and sings to its level. The instrumentation sounds vaguely African – the hand drums galloping alongside, the scoop of steel drums or xylophone-type instruments – and we’re back in the studio for this. This is a fun song, an uptempo analogue to The Pusher. Ike &Tina Turner sang it first, but their version feels overproduced and lacks the drive of Nina’s.
I’m falling into the trap of narrating the album instead of explaining it, though. And that might leave me overselling it, too. I love this album, but it’s just a good album. Those three songs capture Nina being able to hit high and low, the holy and the profane. The rest of the album just has her on point. She plays ‘Mr. Bojangles’ and ‘I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl’ and plays with the crowd, teases the songs. It’s not an epiphany, but it’s just good. Her brother Sam sings with her on the Everly Brothers’ song ‘Let It Be Me’, and that song sticks less than all the others, but it’s still well executed as a torch ballad.
I will allow myself to dwell on the other two songs on the album, along with the bonus tracks on Spotify. ‘Dambala’ and ‘Obeah Woman’ both appear to be songs from Exuma, a Bahamian musician. The first is a warning to slavers, and my god, I would fear a warning from no one more than Nina. Thumb pianos pluck and a sitar twangs behind her, and the slavers ‘will know, what it’s like to be a slave. Slave to your mind, slave to your race.’ ‘Obeah Woman’ is groovier, peppier, Nina at her brightest as she talks with the crowd (including Exuma himself), laughs with them or at them, or preaches, or raps. She stays off the piano on this song, working the crowd into a clapping backbeat and hollers, and she gets into the verse. Obeah is a Caribbean/African religion in the area of Voodoo or Santeria, and one can imagine Nina as its high priestess, as the leader we will follow to the sunlight or directly of a cliff.
The three bonus tracks – ‘Nina’, ‘Zungo’, and ‘Thandewye’ – all extend this African/Caribbean theme. The first is a four-minute chant, either wordless or in another language. The version of Zungo races, a cry from the open fields, ushered by minor key sitar playing and jingling percussion. The last returns to classic instrumentation save for a little of the thumb piano or similar in the mix. This is halfway between ‘Dambala’ and ‘Com’ By H’Yere,’ a spiritual but perhaps back to the Christian Lord, with the uncertainty that her Afro Caribbean work is wrapped in.
This is a good record, as I’ve said, and I love listening to it. Not much is written about it. If that was all there was, I could write a review and be done with it.
But those last songs I mentioned seem to me a path unexplored, a world untaken. This record came out in 1974, two years before Dylan’s Desire, with its cartoonish and sort of offensive depiction of Africa (‘Mozambique’) and its mild flourishes of Latin American inspiration (‘Durango’). It’s 12 years before Paul Simon’s Graceland, it’s eight years before Orchestra Baobab’s Pirate’s Choice and it’s contemporaneous with Fela Kuti’s rise. Nina once went as the High Priestess of Soul, but this record shows how she could have been the High Priestess of the World. She in a way no one else from the US could.
That’s my projection of a desire though, and categorically unimportant. I only say it to say just as Nina’s life was coming unstuck, there were so many opportunities in front of her. With her voice, her interests, her piano playing and her skill of interpretation, she could do anything. Except for mental health challenges and people hurting her and taking advantage of her, except that she had a child and obligations, except for the money issues, and maybe most of all except she had been performing all her life and maybe she was tired of it all.
The point isn’t what she should have or could have done, specifically. The point is that she was never granted her second act, never able to reinvent herself and find a renewal. Or she never took that second act. What is less American than that denial, that failure? I can’t point a finger and say who was responsible, whether the people in her life, the world, US society, or Nina herself. But after watching the documentary and then reading biographies, I cannot escape that sense of deprivation. Dylan was famous for reinventing himself again and again, and one also gets the sense that he never really lost who he was. David Bowie, who met Nina around the time of this album and struck up a friendship with her and even counseled her, was famous for this reinvention. That sense is why I root for Cat Power, because when you read the stories about her there’s a persistence, a fall and then rise arc around each new album, and a hint of defensiveness, as if she knows how easy it is to fall again. And I just want her to find that calm, that satisfaction. Maybe it comes back to my mother, who died from 53 and never got to enjoy her reinvention.
It Is Finished is from the new testament, John 19:30, Jesus giving up the ghost. Nina echoes it at the end of ‘Obeah Woman’, ‘Let’s finish it,’ she says, ending the record. Sometime in college, before my mother died I think, there was a viral campaign on campus. People hung signs and fliers from dorm room windows and in hallways throughout, asking ‘Is It Finished?’ I went to Duke, in the south even if inflected with the northeast, and had not met evangelical Christianity before college. I didn’t know what this was. But at a point a few days later, the signs were replaced with ‘It Is Finished,’ and everybody in the student group behind this, hundreds of students, wore orange t-shirts on which the phrase was written. A friend of mine from my freshman dorm was in this group. He and I shared a love for music, for the punk/pop-punk/emo world, and I was surprised to see him in this group. I didn’t know anything, I didn’t ask, but the overall display annoyed me. And I remember teasing him on AOL instant messenger, sending him a message that said, ‘Remember, nothing is ever really finished.’
But like most college kids, I was wrong. The point of all this is that things do finish. Time runs out. Maybe that’s what you learn at 34, or at 41, or maybe you never learn it until you’re on your deathbed and time has finally come. When I think about Nina, and I have been for a while, that’s what I end up thinking about. This record, and how things did or didn’t finish for her.